A Villain’s Welcome: The Brutal Dictator Returns to Haiti for His Swiss Cash

January 20th, 2011

Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvailer | WikiCommons

On Sunday Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier returned to Haiti.

“Baby Doc” took office as Haiti’s President (read: brutal dictator) when his father, “Papa Doc,” died in 1971.  He was 19.  What followed was a violent fifteen year rule, characterized by government-led kidnappings, tortures, and murders, and—by the estimates of human rights groups—the theft of $300 million of dollars from the nation’s treasury.  Duvalier fled to France in 1986 to escape a revolt and has lived in exile ever since.  Well, until last Sunday, when he unexpectedly returned to Haiti.

Duvalier has hardly spoken for himself in public since his mysterious arrival and conspiracy theories have abounded.  His unfocused gaze, shuffling step, and hollow eyes have led many to believe he has come home to die.  Other more cynical Haitians believe President Rene Préval, who is embroiled in a disputed election, urged Duvalier to return as a distraction.  Duvalier’s own angry-looking lawyer, Reynold Georges, has noted “[Duvalier] is free to do whatever he wants, go wherever he wants” and could even choose to return to politics.

The most plausible explanation, though, has to do with the stolen money.  Many years have passed since Duvalier boarded a plane in Port-Au-Prince for France, along with 20 servants and trunks full of designer clothes, gold, and priceless art.  Duvalier stashed some of these ill-gotten gains in a Swiss bank account, of which authorities froze about $5.7 million. The Swiss would have returned this money to Duvalier in 2008 because no mutual legal assistance partnership exists between Switzerland and Haiti.  However, in response to a group of Haitians’ pleas, the Swiss quickly drafted a law that allows a Swiss judge to order restitution, if Haiti can prove a discrepancy between the wealth of Duvalier and his earnings. This law will come into force on February 1st, at which point Swiss prosecutors will be able to bring a case against Duvalier and return the money to Haiti if he loses.

Given that February 1st is ten days away, many believe Duvalier has returned to Haiti to see his embezzlement charges dropped in Haiti before they are heard in Switzerland, which would strengthen his case there.  The good news is that Haitian prosecutors presented formal corruption and embezzlement charges against Duvalier on Tuesday.  The judge has also ordered Duvalier not to leave Haiti, while he deliberates on whether there is sufficient evidence to charge the former dictator.  The bad news is that the charges filed Tuesday are modest at best and the judge may yet decide to drop them.

Haiti has endured enough.  Duvalier’s period as President is one of the darkest hours in the nation’s history, a history which also includes convulsing political instability, multiple hurricanes, the most devastating earthquake in the region’s history, food riots, and numerous cruel dictatorships.  In recent years Haiti has seen only slivers of optimism brought on by a new constitution and the first ever peaceful transfer of power between two elected presidents.  Though leaders have already broken this modest track record with a rigged presidential election last November and a still-uncertain and postponed runoff.

Trying Duvalier would be an important, symbolic step forward for the nation and could give confidence to the otherwise disheartened Haitians.  Though the charges are modest considering the depth of Duvalier’s damage to the country, they represent one of the nation’s first prosecutions against one of its own leaders.  And while $5.7 million is a small portion of Duvalier’s overall pillaging, this money has weighty symbolic importance for the nation of Haiti.  This trial is an important first step toward justice and an crucial opportunity for democracy in Haiti—which is currently reeling in a downward spiral—to seize some control.

Human rights advocates worldwide have voiced support for a trial.  Amnesty International has said in a statement that “if true justice is to be done in Haiti, the Haitian authorities need to open a criminal investigation into Duvalier’s responsibility for the multitude of human rights abuses that were committed under his rule.”  Human Rights Watch counsel Reed Brody has said Haiti’s government should seize the “chance to bring Duvalier to justice as an important confidence-building measure.”  He added “Bringing Duvalier to justice and giving him a fair trial could show Haitians that the state still functions, that it can perform the most basic of duties, to punish those who commit the worst crimes.”

Today the Economist fittingly asked “Is there such a thing as crime in Haiti?”  And the truth is the only thing worse for Haiti than one million earthquake displaced victims, numerous hurricanes, a cholera epidemic and a political vacuum, is a one word answer to that question. No.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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